Animal Passion: Bataille, Agamben, and Grizzly Man

March 21, 2007 at 11:37 am | Posted in bataille, ethics, excess, film, materiality, mysticism, no-self, the animal, weil | 9 Comments

“And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
at everything and never from!
It floods us. We arrange it. It decays.
We arrange it again, and we decay.

Who’s turned us around like this,
so that whatever we do, we always have
the look of someone going away? Just as a man
on the last hill showing him his whole valley
one last time, turns, and stops, and lingers —
so we live, and are forever leaving.”

— Rainer Marie Rilke, from the Eighth Duino Elegy

Something has been troubling me in all this talk of ecstatic self-forgetting. In order to make Bataille and Weil play nice with each other, I had to sand off some of their rough edges. In particular, I had to paint both Bataille’s abandon and Weil’s obedience as essentially mental states; in the foregoing post, these writers resemble nothing so much as a Buddhist monk and nun who, in their quite distinct ways, are striving to quiet the chatter of conscious thought and to replace it with the profound silence of the sacred. As a Buddhist sympathizer, I respect a lot of things about Weil’s ethics of attention, but the weakest link in her chain is the way that attention translates into action — all she can say is that “the actions that follow [attention] will be automatic.” There is a troubling refusal of responsibility here that seems to have to do with Weil’s discomfort in her own embodiedness; we have already seen, in my post on Weilian self-sacrifice, the fierceness with which she deprives herself of necessities in the name of ethics, but her wish to be “decreated” is more profound than a wish for death — it is a wish, as her term suggests, to undo her own creation. She writes, “When I am in any place, I disturb the silence of heaven and earth by my breathing and the beating of my heart.” She wishes, in short, to not have a body, and this creates a problem in terms of engaging with the physical world — her efforts at ethical action, as outlined in that earlier post, are often bizarre, unsuccessful, and misunderstood. Ultimately they are fatal. (Though they retain, as I argued, a symbolic value.)

In Bataille, the disconnect between mind/soul and body is just as profound, but since he values the body and not the soul, we encounter Weil’s difficulty reversed, as in a mirror: the blind spot in his thinking is how to get from action to attention, from ecstatic bodily practice to reflective morality. Bataille is not even really interested in reflective morality; the closest he comes is to argue for the continual overthrow of moral systems in favor of a continual quest for the authentically contradictory promptings of the deepest self. My problem with this is not so much that this ‘deepest self’ disappears into the bodily (though it could be said that this is another escape from responsibility), but rather with the particular way in which Bataille mobilizes the category of the animal in order to describe the embodied aspects of personhood.

Last time, I described Bataille’s sense of humans as “discontinuous” beings, fundamentally alone in their heads. This is imagined, in Erotism and especially in Theory of Religion, in contrast to the “continuity,” the immanence and immediacy, of the animal world, for which he argues we have a deep nostalgia. We imagine that animals “exist in the world like water in water,” and we experience ourselves as lacking this feeling: “Man is the being that has lost, and even rejected, that which he obscurely is, a vague intimacy.” Bataille’s pursuit of the experience of sovereignty is the quest to “lose his head” and give himself over to the animal within.

This account of the animal world resonates with us because it does sound true, it does recall a feeling we can empathize with. Animals are frequently evoked, in literature and film, as figures of Edenic innocence or of blind necessity — and either way, we see in their unselfconsciousness a state we envy. Rilke, in the poem excerpted in the epigraph, describes this nostalgia: “All other creatures look into the Open / with their whole eyes. But our eyes, / turned inward, are set all around it like snares.” The problem, as in Bataille, is self-consciousness; if only we could rid ourselves of it, we could exist “in that pure space . . . in which flowers endlessly open,” we could reside in “Nowhere without No.”

Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal follows Heidegger in exposing this imagined nostalgia as an utter fabrication. Where Rilke and Bataille see the animal’s experience as one of glorious harmony with its surroundings, Agamben and Heidegger see it as one of blindness and incomprehension. Agamben cites zoologist Jakob von Uexküll on the experience of the tick, who is blind, deaf, and ultimately responsive to only three things: the smell of butyric acid, contained in the sweat of all mammals, which causes her to abandon her post and fall blindly downward; the temperature of 37 degrees centigrade, which indicates that she has in fact fallen on a mammal; and the typology of mammal skin, which she navigates in order to find the least hairy spot from which to suck her meal.

The animal is, in Heidegger’s terms, “captivated” by those few phenomena that trigger its behaviors. He explains that a stone is “worldless,” while an animal is “poor in world” — it is open to certain specific phenomena, but it cannot recognize them as such. The tick has no knowledge of the dog, or its sweat, or butyric acid; it just responds automatically to a signal. The problem is that we don’t want to think of animals as mechanisms; waterfalls obey the laws of physics, but animals behave, even if they cannot act. Heidegger calls them “poor in world” to indicate the degree to which we humans project ourselves onto them; rather than seeing, as Bataille does, humanity as constituted by a lack of animal immediacy, Heidegger reverses the terms. We can think of animals, he argues, only in terms of a subtraction from ourselves: animals lack the uniquely human understanding of beings as beings.

The temptation to romanticize this lack is great. Agamben writes, “The tick is immediately united to these three elements in an intense and passionate relationship the likes of which we might never find in the relations that bind man to his apparently much richer world. The tick is this relationship; she lives only in and for it.” But is being a relationship the same thing as having a passionate relationship? The answer is an unequivocal “no,” and this is what Bataillean romanticizations of the animal obscure. When we speak of “animal passion,” we anthropomorphize the animal; for passion to be involved, there must first be a recognition of subject and object, which puts us squarely in the realm of the human.

At times, Bataille acknowledges this. Near the beginning of Theory of Religion, he admits that there is a “sticky temptation of poetry” about the animal, because “In a sense, I know this depth: it is my own.” Annie Dillard, in an essay called “Living Like Weasels,” succumbs to precisely this temptation: she valorizes the weasel’s instinct to bite and hold, offering an image of an eagle shot out of the sky with a weasel skull attached to its neck. The weasel, attacked by the eagle, must have fought back and almost won, and its corpse must have dangled from the eagle for weeks. Dillard, of course, turns this grim scenario into a moral imperative:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

This is a beautiful metaphor for passion, but it cannot be said that the weasel feels passion. The danger here is that we believe these metaphors, and they trick us into facile ways of thinking about our own relationship to the animal part of us: our bodies. Bataille seeks, in his mystical practice, to liberate himself from conscious thought and obey his animal instincts, but this is never in fact possible. Agamben puts it this way: “While mystical knowledge is essentially the experience of a nonknowledge and of a concealment as such, the animal cannot comport itself toward the not open.” In other words, an animal doesn’t know that it doesn’t know itself, whereas a human can never quite escape her self-awareness. The terms of the comparison are always ours, because the animal doesn’t have terms.

Timothy Treadwell, subject of the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, provides a vivid example of one way this mistake can be fatal. He spent thirteen summers in remotest Alaska, living with and filming grizzly bears, until inevitably he was killed and eaten by them. This is not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first three minutes of the movie and is plastered all over the preview — in fact, Treadwell’s death is what makes this a film worth watching and not just another nature show. Treadwell loves the bears; he names them all, he pets them, he mourns their deaths, and at several different points in the film he works himself into a frenzy about trappers and poachers and the encroachment of civilization: “I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends! In love with my animal friends. I’m very, very troubled. It’s very emotional. It’s probably not cool even looking like this. I’m so in love with them, and they’re so f-ed over, which so sucks.”

He is sympathetic because of his passion. It is animal passion, in the mistaken sense evoked by the passage from Dillard — the bears are Treadwell’s one necessity, and he is holding onto them even though they might be his death. In fact, it often seems that he devotes himself to the bears because they might be his death. One of the people interviewed in the film is a woman whose house in Kodiak, Alaska was always the last place Treadwell stayed when he was on his way out into the wilderness; she reports that every year, as he would set out, he would tell her that if he didn’t come back, she shouldn’t be sad, because he had died doing what he loved.

But the bears, as director Werner Herzog reminds us, cannot love him back:

And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.

The problem with romanticization of the animal is that it does not allow us to see the radical closedness of the animal. People like Treadwell, Dillard, Rilke, and Bataille fancy that they are getting in touch with something “primal,” originary, and authentic within the human when they embrace their “animal” passions, but in fact, this is a profound rejection of what is most animal-like within us. The animal is that which does not know itself; it is the truly unknowable, blindly biological forces that, terrifyingly, motivate us at the core.

The problem I have with both Weil and Bataille, then, is that whether you value the mind over the body or the body over the mind, you are still failing to deal adequately with the dual, always contradictory nature of the human. Treadwell becomes a reverse Ahab, proving that to embrace the animal is just as fatal as to reject it.



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  1. One of my favorite interviews in the film is with the curator of the museum on the Indian reservation in Alaska. He notes that his tribe traditionally believed in keeping its distance from the bears, not just for the obvious reasons of safety but also out of respect for their differences–a sort of sacred Otherness. The tribe understands what Treadwell doesn’t, which is that understanding the Other means understanding its differences, not insisting on its similarities.

  2. I happened on this posting today—I don’t know how I got here—and found it very interesting and well done. Thanks.

  3. Tom: yes, a totally relevant moment; thanks for reminding me of it!

    Kelly: Welcome, and thanks for your kind words!

  4. This was remarkable, uncomplicatedly.

    It reminds me of the wonderful progression in Steppenwolf from Harry’s identification with “the wolf of the steppes,” which as an animal is a bloody criminal of instinct, to his recognition that both the wolf and the “human soul” that supposedly struggles against it are creations of his own founding intelligence and will-to-metaphor.

    I’ll put the rest of my comment on my blog. Cheers!

  5. […] is inspired by uncomplicatedly’s wonderful new post on Georges Bataille and Simone Weil, which ends with a consideration of the Werner Herzog film […]

  6. Dirty was drunk…

    I’ve never been that interested in Bataille’s theoretical writings…His practice had a much greater intensity for me. But you bring a lot to them.

    What did resonate for me in Erotism was his description of sex where one finds a unity of mind and body, the evasion of the superego. Doing sport well is very similar, operating at the highest pitch without being self-conscious…

    Where do those Heidegger terms come from? I think his concept of Being-to-hand is useful here.

    I heard Herzog pitching his movie on NPR. His gravelly voice saying: ‘The bear is interested in one thing only: food.’

  7. RA: The Heidegger that Agamben looks at is from a course he gave in winter 1929-30 at the University of Freiburg called “The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude.” It’s available in English under that title here. This is where he lays out the worldless / poor in world distinction & also includes an extended meditation on the state of profound boredom. My Being & Time is rusty, but being-to-hand is certainly a related concept. I suppose you could say that only to a human can a being be at-hand & ready for use, but I don’t remember enough about being-to-hand to be certain whether it applies to his conception of the animal. I’m not even seeing the term in my translation (Stambaugh); she seems to prefer “handiness” for Zuhandenheit (being-at-hand) so she might be doing something weird with “to-hand”. What was your thought about this?

  8. Totally agree about Weil & Bataille.

    Maybe we need a middle-way here. The anthropomorphism a-la grizzlyman is erroneous, to be sure. But I find the Heideggerian-Agambean worldlessness and “mechanisticness” of animals also hard to swallow. The tick, yes. Or at least, maybe. But the grizzly? Or the dog? It seems to me that Heidegger’s inistence on the uniqueness of human language/world is connected to his (mistaken) anti-naturalism; in Heidegger there can be no gradual ascent/descent from the Vervet monkey’s cries to human grunts and sentences. However, from some sort of experiental as well as some kinds of naturalistic points of view this gradual continuum is as plain as day. In Bataille the continuum exists. In this he is, perhaps paradoxically, a more sober philosopher than H. H falls prey to the elitistic & anthropocentric tendency of Western phil in insisting on the complete cut between animal & human language.

  9. If you’re associating the adjective “animal” with “that which does not KNOW itself”, then I think the issue you raise is mute. Knowledge in the sense of intelligibility, in the sense of objective awareness of the self- that is precisely what is furthest from “animal” in my mind.

    You portray an animal like a machine, going through processes it doesn’t feel. I think its the opposite, I think the animal feels them more than the human. In fact, to be “animal” is to be pure feeling.

    The human condition taints that state of feeling. Humans, in having awareness of the self (intelligibility), are numb to feeling… to some degree. Their “knowing” distances themselves from raw feeling.

    To the extent one is animal, one is blind and feels. To the extent that one is aware of the self (distinct from the animal), one can see but cannot feel.

    “People like Treadwell, Dillard, Rilke, and Bataille fancy that they are getting in touch with something “primal,” originary, and authentic within the human when they embrace their “animal” passions, but in fact, this is a profound rejection of what is most animal-like within us… The animal is that which does not know itself”

    As Bataille says, it’s project to get beyond project. No one says you can’t use reason to destroy reason… knowledge to destroy knowledge

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